Sunday, January 08, 2012

"Listen, Observe" - the sound of chances squandered

Day three of my PTLLS and, and after a whistlestop tour of TNA (training needs analysis, for the uninitiated; "straightforward" apparently) and teaching methods (PowerPoint isn't, but reading is, and so is "e-learning"* - best suited only to reflective/theorist learning styles though), we had gotten as far as lesson planning.

Building on earlier work on SMART objectives we were required to plan a lesson to meet the objective we had written. I, like a couple of others, had taken the easy route by writing my example objective to meet the first of the proffered suggestions - making a cup of tea.

Working on to a blank copy of our lesson plan template and in homage to the training we were burying that week, I thought that the requisite for any such training would be at least a good 45 minutes on the history of tea drinking and production, perhaps best taught by some videos, maybe starring Jonny Vegas and Monkey,  and summarised by drawing a timeline on flipchart paper (learning objective, where tea comes from) and a solid hour long facilitated discussion on tea drinking habits of the English (learning  objective, how different tea drinkers might ask for their tea - milk, sugar or lemon - fancy "foreign" teas were out of scope for this project).

I may have been facetious, but my point had been an important one - as a "tea making expert" or "tea-sommelier"  I may well have thought all these elements important in gaining a deeper understanding of the perfect cup of tea, but from the point of view of a manager wanting to get a member of staff up to speed on making passable tea as quickly as possible, I was way off the mark. But it went unchallenged - not a question was asked. Fair enough; perhaps my irreverent tone had the effect of making my whole plan a joke, not worthy of comment.

But another learner in our group had make a clear stab at doing things by the book and at least making a reasonable attempt to create a lesson plan on tea drinking. Over six separate sessions learners would learn distinct but related topics, culminating in a practical exercise that drew things together.

The sheet we were using included several columns, central of which were two headed "Tutor activity" and "Learner activity". In the first column my colleague had stated that the tutor would carry out a variation on presenting to the class, while in each of the boxes in the second column learners would "listen, observe". After a day spent discussing teaching methods (albeit somewhat confusingly), the first chance to put these in to practice was met with the same old response.

But the trainer did not pick up on that. For reasons of politeness and decorum I wouldn't have expected him to call anyone out by name, but I might reasonably have expected the summary for the session to draw attention to the value of a column listing at a glance all the learner activity for just checking that you are using different, appropriate techniques to support each learning point. At the very least, I thought the trainer might use it as an opportunity to tie these two elements of the course together - to show how element A fitted with B to produce a better outcome. But he didn't.

I'm not highlighting this particularly to shame my co-participant on the course - I'm not naming them after all. I am however using this one instance to highlight the parlous state of educator training in the post-16, or "lifelong learning" sector.

This course was being taught by an experienced independent consultant who has taught PTLLS course in many places. Besides the way this day was covered, we have been subjected to learning styles (my rebuttal of which by means of reference to an excellent summary article by Guy Wallace was dismissed as "another point of view"), murky exercises that seem only to aim to get us to list some words and call that learning the topic; course notes that comprise dozens of unnumbered pages of content often copied verbatim from; an implicit assumption that training can and will only take place in person, in the classroom or during one-to-ones in the workplace; I could go on.

And it's not only this one trainer - they themselves recounted their own experience of having been "taught" during their own PTLLS course about learning objectives by a duo at a local college who espouse a uniquely dogmatic approach: every session, no matter what the duration or overall goal, must include around five learning objectives that must be covered plus one or two "nice-to-haves" (and I think by extension, so must every session have a slide that gives the same). This peculiarly unique take on things seems to combine the usual "rules" with some half-remembered suggestions on the prioritisation of content (the "musts, shoulds and coulds" as I was told; but for private use only as a tool for time-managing engaged groups, not explicitly sharing with learners) and perhaps the "rule of seven" for remembering things.

That experience for our trainer had been some 8 or so years ago, but I distinctly recall puzzling at this same approach when another colleague undertook the same course at the same college only a couple of years ago. That means at least 5 years' worth of new entrants to the sector have been taught the same strange take on objectives; quite apart from a mandated curriculum that includes unproven theories, like learning styles, being taught as "holy writ".

How can the post-16 sector ever hope to aspire to anything other than punishing mediocrity if it not only allows this kind of thing to persist, but actively enshrines these approaches in the indoctrination of new disciples? At a time when state schooling seems to be failing the national need for adequately trained young people (not to mention failing those young people themselves), and the powers-that-be seem to be pinning their hopes on apprenticeships and other forms of post-16 vocational learning to remedy that failure, it is surely negligent of all concerned that those tasked to help are being so poorly served by the systems designed to prepare them.

Educators for those failed by education being themselves failed by education? Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised.

* Interestingly, my point that "e-learning" is simply a delivery channel - online learners can watch or experience lectures, read, engage in simulations, discuss topics with others, be tested and so on through nearly all of the other, somewhat arbitrary list of "teaching methods" - was not really appreciated. 

** There was no double asterisk, but one might appear in that final paragraph. I don't mean to suggest that vocational education is only for those failed by school - that would be a silly thing to say and completely untrue as members of my own family would attest - but I didn't want to ruin that pithy final sound bite by hedging my statement or garnishing it with hard-to-pronounce typographical symbols.